I should probably preface this review by telling you two things about myself. The first is that every application on my iPhone’s homescreen—with the sole exception of Settings—is devoted to acquiring, organising, or sharing information. The second is that I’m an interface snob. The only good software is pretty software.
Articles is a Wikipedia app. It lets you search, surf and share Wikipedia articles. It doesn’t allow you to sign in or edit those articles, but I have a hard time holding that against an iPhone app; editing Wikipedia on a device with a 320×480 screen would be a nightmare no matter how elegant, useful, and attractive the rest of the app is.
Running Articles for the first time brings you to a basic search screen. The first thing I noticed about the interface was that the toolbar at the bottom of the screen looked awfully familiar; Sophia Teutschler, the developer, chose to make Articles closely resemble Safari.
This is a good thing: if you’re at all familiar with an iPhone, you can open Articles and start using it with no learning curve. The Back and Forward buttons work exactly as you’d expect. So does the Add Bookmark button, although it also gives you the added option of emailing a link to the current article.
Likewise, the Bookmarks button shows your bookmarks and allows you to organise them, but it also hides a couple of pleasant surprises.
The first unexpected feature hiding behind the Bookmarks button is “Nearby”. Tapping on this brings up a map of your current location with pins for Wikipedia articles about nearby places. In the middle of rural Ohio the pickings were a little sparse, but it managed to find the college that dominates the little town I live in.
Articles’ “Nearby” feature is only as good as Wikipedia’s geotagging information. If you want it to be more useful in your area, sign in to Wikipedia on your computer and add location data to businesses and other local landmarks.
The second pleasant surprise is exactly that—”Surprise Me!”. Perfect for those times when you’ve got a few free minutes and an itch to learn something new, “Surprise Me!” brings up a random Wikipedia article. This feature can also be evoked by shaking your iPhone while already looking at an article.
The last toolbar button is the one that got me excited about Articles. Just like in Safari, it’s a Pages button that lets you open new pages and switch back and forth between them instead of having to use the Back and Forward buttons.
My previous favourite Wikipedia reader lacked this feature, which made it very frustrating to try to compare two articles on my iPhone. You can either open new pages from this button and then find the pages you want using the search bar, or tap and hold on a link to an interesting article to open it in a new page.
In addition to shaking for a random article, Articles supports a couple other unusual interface gestures. As in the popular Twitter client Tweetie, you can pull down from the top of an article view to perform an action.
Where Tweetie implements pull-down-to-refresh, Articles offers Pull-down-to-lock-orientation, which can come in very handy if you’re reading in bed. You can also double-tap and then drag up or down while looking at an article to quickly skim through the chapters of that article, which can come in very handy since Articles doesn’t offer the “Find in page” feature that some of its competitors do.
Images and infoboxes—those boxes on the side of Wikipedia articles that contain quick information like birth and death dates and software release dates—open in a popup view.
While I normally dislike popup views in iPhone apps, this is a very elegant solution to a Wikipedia feature that was absolutely not designed for the iPhone. Once opened, images can easily be saved by tapping and holding them, just as in Safari.
It’s also worth noting that Articles caches your recent searches so you can access them even without internet access.
The most prominent misfeatures in Articles are in its search feature. Searches that produce lots of similar results with long titles—say, searching for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—are impossible to navigate, since Articles simply shows the first “x” characters of each result instead of showing where they differ.
This can be somewhat mitigated by using the Content search feature, which shows you the article title and some of the text for each match; unfortunately, that option often means dealing with multiple hits from individual articles.
Additionally—and I’m nitpicking here—your search string remains visible in the search field once you’ve selected a results page. I wish Articles would take another cue from MobileSafari and at least fake-clear the search field until you tap on it again. The visible search string leaves me and my OCD tendencies twitching.
The orientation lock code only seems to prevent orientation from switching from horizontal to vertical or vice versa. It does not prevent the view from flipping if you turn your iPhone “upside down”—that is, if you’re holding it vertically with the Home button on the bottom and you turn it so the Home button is on top, Articles will flip so it’s still upright from your point of view. This can be frustrating if you’re trying to show someone else an interesting article.
Unlike a few competing applications, although Articles caches your recent searches for offline access, it has no explicit save feature.
The Very, Very, Pretty
I said before that I’m an interface snob. Articles completely lives up to my expectations of beautiful iPhone software. The colour of the main controls appears to be based on MobileSafari for iPad, which is in no way a bad thing. Partnered with the Safari-like toolbar buttons, the colouration gives Articles an official but distinctive look that sets it apart from its competition.
Wikipedia articles themselves are rendered in a very readable serif font that makes them a pleasure to read, even on a small screen.
Be sure to check out On This Day, another beautiful application that the developer of Articles released for free when Articles broke a certain number of sales in its first few days.
In my opinion, there’s only one app that can compete with Articles for the title of Best Wikipedia Reader for the iPhone: Wikipanion Plus.
Since W+ offers page saving, find in page, adjustable font sizes, and Wiktionary integration but lacks pages, a readable serif, Nearby, Surprise Me!, and the distinctive look of Articles, I’d have to say it’s just about a toss-up between them.
Wikipanion Plus is a very mature app with a lot of features, but I honestly didn’t know about half of them until I started writing this review (and I still don’t care about most of them). It’s still probably at least worth picking up a copy of the free (but slighly less feature-packed) Wikipanion to see if it suits your Wikipedia-reading style better; the full Wikipanion Plus is $4.99.
Articles is an excellent MobileSafari-like Wikipedia browser that makes reading Wikipedia a pleasure. Knowing the developer, it’s only going to get better! At $2.99 in the App Store, it’s hard to go wrong.